For many people, alcoholic drinks are simply a dietary indulgence and cause no more trouble than coffee. For all too many others, however, alcohol means more than good flavor and mild relaxation: it represents self-medication for pain and stress. When used in this fashion, alcohol stands a high chance of taking over a person’s entire life. As many as one in 13 U.S. adults—not to mention three million high-school-age citizens—may be problem drinkers or alcoholics.
If you suspect you yourself may be overdoing the bottle—yet aren’t strictly addicted and hate to give up your special wine completely—here are some tips for judging whether you’re drinking too much and for cutting down to a healthy level.
1. Know if you’re in a high-risk group for alcoholism.
Like it or not—and no “ifs, ands or buts” about it—you should avoid all alcohol as a bad risk if you fit any of the following descriptions:
- Any of your close relatives have or have had a problem with out-of-control drinking.
- You are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- You are under legal drinking age (aside from the risks of trouble with the law, still-developing bodies and brains really are in greater danger of addiction or permanent cognitive impairment).
- You have any health problems with your liver or heart.
- You have a diagnosed mental illness or are prone to feelings of deep depression.
2. Know what constitutes responsible alcohol consumption.
While well aware of the dangers of extensive consumption, the medical community does acknowledge that moderate alcohol intake has potential health benefits (not that anyone should take up drinking for that reason alone). The officially recommended maximum is two standard-sized drinks every 24 hours for men under 65, and one drink a day for everyone else.
3. Beware of gatherings where drinking alcohol is the central means of entertainment.
A full dinner with alcohol as a single item on the menu is one thing—but be careful you know your own limits and weak spots before accepting invitations to beer fests, wine tastings or cocktail parties. And stay far away from any friendly gathering that hints binge drinking will be the primary activity.
4. Watch those refills.
The world is plagued with cheerful hosts and waiters who dump additional liquid refreshment into half-emptied glasses without asking. With alcoholic drinks, don’t take the chance of losing count: practice saying a quick “No thank you” before the refill can be poured, and if you fail to catch it in time, put the whole glass out of reach and forget about having any more this evening. Ask for a glass of water or another nonalcoholic drink, and sip it slowly.
5. Never gulp your drinks.
The faster you drink, the more you’ll consume, and the more negative its effect is likely to be. (This applies to everything consumable, not just alcohol. People who gobble and gulp their meals on the run suffer more frequent stomachaches and gain more weight.)
6. Don’t drink any alcohol if you’re going to be driving within the next hour, especially after dark or in bad weather.
Even a little alcohol in the bloodstream can throw off judgment and reaction time. When operating a vehicle or other heavy equipment, you need all the clearheadedness you can get.
7. Consider volunteering to be designated driver.
If you’re good at staying true to your promises, agreeing to be the one who does without and drops everyone else off will give you an extra incentive to skip drinking for the evening—and an extra weapon for saying “no” should you encounter a pushy host.
8. Don’t believe folk remedies for staying or getting sober.
- Sticking to beer won’t likely decrease your chances of getting drunk. Beer does have less alcohol per ounce than wine or liquor, but it’s also served in larger portions: every standard-size drink carries about the same amount of absolute alcohol.
- White wine is no less alcoholic than the same amount of red.
- Eating before drinking slows the body’s absorption of alcohol, but eventually, the same amount of alcohol will get you just as drunk.
- If you’ve already had too much, strong coffee or a cold shower will only give you “wide-awake-drunk syndrome,” which may increase the risk of dangerous behavior. While drinking water and eating nutritious foods can reduce hangover risks, the only way to sober up is to wait it out.
9. If you feel the least bit lightheaded or foggy, put aside all alcohol immediately and for the rest of the day, even if you’re only halfway through your first drink.
And even if you’ve had two drinks per evening a hundred times with no problems. Reactions to alcohol vary from time to time as well as from person to person. If you brush aside warning signs and continue with the drink, you may soon become unable to think clearly—and unable to stop drinking.
10. If you have any symptoms of real alcoholism, disregard all the above and get professional help.
Once someone develops alcohol use disorder, chances of responsible cutting down are virtually nil—the person has become dependent on alcohol to a point beyond their control, and the only recourse is treatment at a professional alcohol detox center, followed by a future of total abstinence. Do not just stop drinking on your own—for all the publicity given to the flu-like agonies of heroin detox, alcohol detox is far more likely to be life-threatening. A professional treatment center will provide quick medical care in case of emergency, and will also be able to judge if you need prescribed alcohol detox drugs to help you through withdrawal.
Start looking into treatment immediately if your drinking regularly manifests the following symptoms:
- You can’t stick to any of the responsible-drinking principles above.
- You can’t enjoy any gathering unless alcohol is served.
- You can drink more than you used to before getting drunk. (Increasing tolerance is not a good thing—it’s a sign your body is getting too used to regular alcohol intake.)
- You feel miserable all over if you go one full day without a drink.
- You’re starting to neglect your responsibilities—or you struggle to keep up with responsibilities you once had no trouble with.
- You frequently drink when alone, or you try to keep others from learning the extent of your drinking.
- Your friends and family hint that you’re drinking too much—and you respond by getting defensive.
- You regularly make and break promises to skip or limit drinking.
If this is you, face it: you have a problem, and the longer you deny it, the worse it’s going to get. Talk to your doctor, get referrals to an established detox center, and commit yourself to cutting drinking not just down but out.